The patients at this New Zealand rehab center are not human, but penguins.

(CNN) – Brash, hardy and vicious: this is how yellow-eyed penguins are fondly described by people who work with them all day long.

“(They) are not as nice and cuddly as they seem,” says Jason van Zanten, conservation manager for Penguin Place in Otago Peninsula, New Zealand. “They can give you a very hard slap in the face.”

The yellow-eyed penguin, locally known as the hoiho, which means “screamer” in Maori, is the largest penguin species that lives and breeds on the New Zealand mainland.

But its population has drastically declined over the past 30 years due to growing threats from predators, climate change and disease. “In the last 10 or so years, we have lost about three-quarters of the population,” says van Zanten.

Now conservationists are uniting to save the species. Place of the penguins — where van Zanten works — provides a place for the hoiho to rest and rejuvenate by being nearby, Wildlife Hospital, Dunedin treats people with serious injuries and illnesses.

These penguin harbors are rushing for time to save a rapidly declining population and give the “noise screamers” a chance to survive.

The yellow-eyed penguin, known as the hoiho, which means “screamer” in Maori, is the largest of the penguin species found on the New Zealand mainland. But in recent decades, the number of hoiho has declined sharply. Now conservationists are rushing to save these rare birds from extinction.

Penguins in a rehabilitation center

While Penguin Place is a haven for all sick and starving birds, including other penguin species, hoiho make up the majority of the patients who pass through, van Zanten says.

The center was founded in 1985 when local farmer Howard McGrowther fenced off about 150 acres of his land to create a sanctuary for the eight breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins that nested on its property.

McGrowther “created the backbone of the rehabilitation center” and also began replanting local trees that had previously been cut down for agriculture, says van Zanten, who started as a laborer at the center, mowed the grass and did maintenance, and now oversees operations. The center was funded entirely by tourism until the Covid-19 pandemic, when it was closed to the public and received government funding through the Department of Conservation, van Zanten said.

Hunger is a big problem for the Hoiho, with about 80% of penguins arriving at the center underweight, says van Zanten. commercial fishing — which resulted in some penguins becoming bycatch — reduced the availability of small fish and squid that penguins feed on, as well as fluctuations in sea temperature due to changing of the climate changed the distribution of production.

“They like it a little cooler, and because of the rise in temperature, they are much more stressed and overheated,” says van Zanten.

Mysterious disease

In addition to starvation, many Hoiho arrive at Penguin Place sick and injured, and this is where the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital, which specializes in native species, steps in.

On land, mammals, including dogs, prey on the Hoiho. stoats and foxes, which can seriously injure them or their chicks while in the water, sharks and barracutepredatory fish with razor-sharp teeth often cause “terrible injuries,” says Lisa Argilla, senior veterinarian and director of the Wildlife Hospital in Dunedin.

Hoiho usually stay at Penguin Place for about two weeks to rest, recover and gain weight before returning to the wild.

Ben Foley/CNN

The Hoiho also suffer from various diseases, including avian malaria and dermatitis, which are treated with antibiotics in the hospital. In addition, avian diphtheria has devastated the Hoiho population over the past 20 years: it causes ulcer-like lesions in the birds’ mouths and makes it difficult for them to eat, eventually leading to starvation.

And now there is another new, unknown disease affecting hoiho chickens. Referred to as “red lungs”, the disease causes breathing problems, according to Kate McInnes, a New Zealand animal welfare veterinarian.

Cases started appearing five years ago, but “there has been a significant increase over the last two (years),” McInnes says. She adds that the disease is not contagious, but researchers are still trying to determine its cause.

Argilla says that if the chickens arrive at the hospital already sick with a mysterious illness, they cannot be saved. But Argilla and her team found a solution: raise the chickens by hand in the hospital.

“If we infect them at a certain age, when they are very young, we can actually prevent them from contracting this disease,” she says. The chicks are taken from the nests shortly after hatching and are reunited with their parents in the wild 10–14 days later.

The Wildlife Hospital sends sick and injured birds to Penguin Place after treatment, where they recover before they are released back into the wild, Argilla says. “We’re interested in knowing that what we’re doing really matters.”

Chance to recoup?

Back at Penguin Place, the Hoiho are kept in small enclosures made of rocks, wood blocks, and shelters. They are placed on an intensive feeding program to fatten them up before release and are fed fish twice a day.

Most birds stay at the center for about two weeks before being released into the sanctuary where they can mate and nest, van Zanten says, adding that “the more they are in the wild, the better for them.”

As the world’s only solitary penguin species, hoiho are asocial and don’t like nesting within sight of their neighbors — sometimes even dropping their eggs if they spot another penguin, van Zanten says. To make them feel safer, Penguin Place scattered small A-shaped wooden houses around the reserve, hidden in the shade of trees and bushes near the beach.

Penguin Place offers visitors tours of the reserve through camouflaged, hand-dug tunnels so tourists can see the Hoiho in their natural habitat without disturbing them.

Penguin Place offers visitors tours of the reserve through camouflaged, hand-dug tunnels so tourists can see the Hoiho in their natural habitat without disturbing them.

Ben Foley/CNN

While there is always a risk of the animals being taken from the wild, McInnes says a practical approach to conservation is needed: “If we don’t intervene, a large number of these chicks will die.” She expects an increase in the number of breeding pairs returning to the beach over the next year or two as a result of the interventions.

And van Zanten is hopeful the species can bounce back. Penguin Place boasts an extremely high success rate, he says, with more than 95% of the 200 to 300 birds that enter the center each year being released back into the wild. Last year, the center achieved a personal best by releasing 99% of the birds, giving hope to this endangered bird.

“The work we do is absolutely critical to them (the penguins) and their survival here on the mainland,” says van Zanten.

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